New Life for an Old Airport
If all goes to plan, Panama City’s old airport eventually will become the city’s first master-planned community, complete with homes and commercial space, hiking trails, a school and a marina. The new owners, the St. Andrew Bay Land Company, have extensive ideas for developing the 700-acre site that once was the air hub of the eastern Panhandle, according to vice president and general manager Bill Cunningham. “The planning is still conceptual,” Cunningham said. “We haven’t nailed down anything definitive yet.” While actual construction on the property is still as much as a year off, and exactly what St. Andrew expects to build could change as the permitting process and market forces begin to exert influence, the general idea now is to create a St. Joe-style development focused on lifestyle and amenities.
New Life For An Old Airport Homes are expected to replace airplanes and students to replace passengers By Tony Bridges Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
If all goes to plan, Panama City’s old airport eventually will become the city’s first master-planned community, complete with homes and commercial space, hiking trails, a school and a marina.
The new owners, the St. Andrew Bay Land Company, have extensive ideas for developing the 700-acre site that once was the air hub of the eastern Panhandle, according to vice president and general manager Bill Cunningham.
“The planning is still conceptual,” Cunningham said. “We haven’t nailed down anything definitive yet.”
While actual construction on the property is still as much as a year off, and exactly what St. Andrew expects to build could change as the permitting process and market forces begin to exert influence, the general idea now is to create a St. Joe-style development focused on lifestyle and amenities.
Cunningham said the company envisions a community of permanent residents — rather than vacationers — who live, shop and enjoy boating and other leisurely activities within a neighborhood geared toward families and the upwardly mobile. It’s a market the company feels has growth potential in Bay County, he said.
“The fact that Panama City has never had a master-planned community we think potentially bodes well for us,” he said.
Taking a chance on the Bay County market
The sale of the airport property was a deal long in the making.
Nearly 15 years ago, airport officials recognized the need to expand the runway at the Panama City-Bay County International Airport. The problem was, the only direction it could be lengthened was out into the environmentally sensitive waters of Goose Bayou.
They began casting about for other options, one of which was the possible relocation of the airport. The St. Joe Company, the single largest private landowner in Bay County, eventually agreed to donate 4,000 acres in West Bay for a new airport as part of a larger commercial development and conservation project in the area.
The plan was not universally embraced, as arguments raged over whether this part of the state needed a new airport and could afford the cost and over the potential environmental harm to the West Bay. More than half of those who voted in a non-binding referendum in 2004 were against relocating the airport. A series of lawsuits filed by environmental groups also followed.
However, construction plans moved ahead, and the Airport Authority prevailed over the suits in federal court.
A key part of financing the new $330 million airport was being able to sell the original property.
St. Andrew, a subsidiary of New York-based Leucadia National, entered into a contract in October 2007 to buy the old airport for $56.5 million.
It might have seemed counter-intuitive to buy land for a development that will include condos and single-family homes at a time when the housing market was imploding, but Cunningham said the environment in Bay County looked right.
He said there are about 2,000 “items trading each year” in the local housing market. Those sales seem to fit into the price range St. Andrew has in mind — $100,000 to $200,000 for multiple-family units, and $250,000 to $400,000 for single-family detached. And, while sales prices were down, there was an uptick in the number and volume of transactions in Bay County last year, Cunningham said.
“It’s too early to say that there’s a trend,” he said, but it’s enough to suggest the project has potential.
With the deal signed, the Airport Authority started planning construction of the new airport, and St. Andrew started drawing up designs for the old property.
Waterfront low-rises for locals
The company’s idea was to create a development that emphasized community, the sort of project that has been successful in other parts of North Florida.
And this wasn’t going to be about second homes for people who live elsewhere.
“We made a conscious decision early on that we were going to be focused on permanent residents,” Cunningham said.
St. Andrew turned to Sasaki Associates, an architecture and urban planning firm in Boston, for ideas. Sasaki had previously worked on several successful projects, including the Beijing Olympics, the Boston College Master Plan and the Cincinnati Riverfront Park.
What the designers came up with was a mixed-use urban development with these features:
- 3,200 residential units made up of apartments, condos, townhomes, estate lots and small single-family lots.
- 700,000 square feet of commercial space, including offices, retail shops, civic buildings and light industrial facilities.
- A marina with 117 wet slips and about 240 dry-stack storage units.
Cunningham said the property will be interspersed with green spaces and include pedestrian paths. And, while zoning allows for building heights of up to 110 feet, the development would not include anything that tall. Building heights will be in keeping with the surrounding community, with the tallest in the middle of the property, away from the water.
“We’re not going to be home of the high-rise or mid-rise,” he said.
St. Andrew held an open house last summer to share the proposed development plan and get input from locals. About 200 people showed up, Cunningham said.
He said from that, and other conversations, tweaks were made to the design and have now been submitted to Panama City officials for an amendment to the comprehensive plan to change the airport’s zoning from light industrial to urban.
Earlier this year, St. Andrew also submitted permit applications to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the work on the marina.
This likely is going to be the most controversial aspect of the project. Building the marina involves making an “upland cut” from Goose Bayou into the property. That means dredging out about 15 acres of wetland for the marina basin, as well as a channel to create water access to the bayou.
“It’s going to be contentious,” Cunningham acknowledged.
In an interview with WMBB News 13 earlier this year, Michael Brim, the executive director of the Friends of St. Andrews Bay said: “Wherever you put a marina or any other man-made structure, the concerns are generically pretty much the same on St. Andrews Bay … If we lose sea grass bed in particular we begin to go down-hill in a lot of ways: productivity, water quality, biodiversity… it’s all built around the sea grass beds in this bay.”
Cunningham said the company is aware of the environmental concerns and plans only to dredge in an existing gap in the sea grass. Of more than 2,000 feet of shoreline on the property, about 150 feet will be affected, he said.
“We’re looking to minimize impact,” he said.
If the marina is approved and built as currently planned, it will be about eight feet deep and able to accommodate boats of up to 60 feet in length.
Meanwhile, the company also is in talks to donate the original terminal building, on the south side of the property, to Bay Haven Charter Academy. The school would use the building to house classes for kindergarten through fifth-grade students, Cunningham said.
Just don’t expect anything to be happening at the property any time soon.
Cunningham said the company’s focus this year is simply closing on the property after airport operations move to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.
Then, they hope to get a development order for the first phase by early next year and begin homebuilding by the end of the year. The goal is to have homes for sale by the second quarter of 2012, he said.
Build-out on the project will take more than 10 years.